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In 2001, the U.S. Congress passed the “No Child Left Behind” Act, which promised to improve the academic performance of the nation’s K-12 schools in part by holding elementary and secondary school administrators to a higher level of accountability while also pouring up to $23 billion of federal spending annually into poorly performing local school districts. In 2015, the U.S. Congress updated that earlier law by passing the “Every Student Succeeds” Act, which purportedly raised the bar on academic rigor for elementary and secondary schools while providing administrators with more flexibility and rewards for achieving higher academic performance and increasing federal spending on local school districts up to $25-$26 billion per year.
Writing in Education Week, former New York City public schools teacher, principal and superintendent Bernard Gassaway describes how the combination of federal academic performance requirements and money are incentivizing local school administrators to adopt fraudulent practices that are inflating their school’s graduation rates while also falsely appearing to meet higher academic standards.
In the age of accountability ushered in by the No Child Left Behind law in 2002 and continued under 2015’s Every Student Succeeds Act, many school officials are using fraudulent methods to inflate graduation rates.
As a direct result of a public thirst for schools to show progress, boards of education pressure superintendents, superintendents squeeze principals, principals ride teachers, and teachers stress students. The ultimate measure of progress for schools nationwide is high school graduation rates.
Public school officials use a variety of schemes to give the appearance of progress.
Gassaway goes on to describe several different schemes that local school administrators have used to juice their graduation rates. For example, one of these schemes involves a policy called credit recovery, where students can make up the failing grades they received during regular classes by completing handout assignments for extra credit, but without ever receiving any additional instruction or taking any additional tests to demonstrate that they have genuinely improved their understanding of the subject they failed.
Another dishonest practice involves falsely reclassifying students as having a disability, where the students are then allowed to receive additional time and assistance in completing assignments and exams. These same students may also have their overall graduation requirements relaxed, where they are allowed to get a high school diploma despite completing far fewer assessments of their academic performance than their general education peers.
Gassaway describes a third outrageous practice that involves getting failing students off the administrators’ books.
Lastly, when education officials cannot use any of the aforementioned tactics to get struggling students through high school, they transfer or push out students who are off-track for graduation—dropping the dead weight that is dragging down graduation statistics. Pushing students out is the most efficient way to increase a school’s graduation rate. Principals transfer overage and undercredited students to alternative schools.
That, too, is an abusive practice I’ve observed firsthand. Here’s how it works: Principals and guidance counselors tell students they must leave the school if they want to graduate. Students are persuaded to transfer to alternative schools under the guise that it is easier for them to earn credits and graduate. In some cases, those same school personnel even inform students that they are not allowed to return, thus rendering these schools no longer accountable for the students’ performance indicators.
In too many ways, the fraudulent practices that Gassaway describes on the part of local school district administrators directly mirror practices that were adopted by administrators at all levels of the Department of Veterans Affairs in the phony wait-list health care rationing scandal that cost hundreds of lives. And in far too many ways, for the exact same reason: the need to hit a goal established by the federal government to collect performance bonuses.
Except here, instead of hundreds and hundreds of lives lost through delayed and denied medical care, we have thousands and thousands of lives wasted with deficient public school educations.